Stran­gled by suc­cess

For Sonya Hart­nett, an in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion has not de­liv­ered hap­pi­ness, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

SONYA Hart­nett is feel­ing her age. Acutely. ‘‘ I am get­ting old: I am ap­proach­ing 40,’’ she con­fides with a world- weary air. ‘‘ I built my ca­reer on be­ing young and now I ain’t. It just seemed to hap­pen so fast.’’ Though she is a gen- Xer with a big lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion, Hart­nett can sound more like a worn- out oc­to­ge­nar­ian. ‘‘ If I sound bum­bling, it’s be­cause I am bum­bling,’’ the award- win­ning writer of chil­dren’s and adult fiction de­clares, ex­plain­ing that this is the first time she has spo­ken to a jour­nal­ist about her latest novel, The Ghost’s Child.

She says it’s also the first time she has an­swered ques­tions about her can­didly erotic but crit­i­cally mauled novel, Land­scape with An­i­mals. This story of an in­tense, il­licit af­fair was pub­lished last year un­der a pseu­do­nym. But Hart­nett’s real iden­tity was soon un­cov­ered and the dirty book by the well- known chil­dren’s au­thor be­came a cause cele­bre — and the sub­ject of much sala­cious gos­sip — in and out­side lit­er­ary cir­cles ( more of which later).

In con­trast, The Ghost’s Child is a chaste, ro­man­tic fa­ble aimed at teen and adult read­ers: a frac­tured fairy­tale about an en­gulf­ing yet im­pos­si­ble love be­tween an ar­dent young wo­man from a priv­i­leged back­ground and a feral young man with an affin­ity for sea birds and the ocean.

Like Land­scape with An­i­mals, it is an el­egy for lost love and a cel­e­bra­tion of ob­ses­sive love. ‘‘ I guess I have been stuck on the sub­ject of love over the past cou­ple of years be­cause I find it sur­pris­ingly in­ter­est­ing once I get started,’’ Hart­nett says. It’s a theme she hadn’t looked at in her ear­lier nov­els and, as she puts it, ‘‘ I guess you get a lit­tle bit ad­dicted to it’’.

The Ghost’s Child is less edgy and dark than many of Hart­nett’s ear­lier works, which have dealt with themes as trou­bling as mur­der, in­cest, child ab­duc­tion and fam­ily vi­o­lence. ‘‘ I think I am mel­low­ing a lit­tle in my old age,’’ she says.

This 39- year- old writer’s ex­ag­ger­ated sense of age­ing stems from the fact that her first novel, Trou­ble All the Way, was pub­lished when she was 15. While many nov­el­ists spend their 30s as emerg­ing writ­ers, by the time Hart­nett turned 30 she was vir­tu­ally a vet­eran.

Ac­cord­ing to Hart­nett, The Ghost’s Child fol­lowed a long pe­riod of ‘‘ op­pres­sion’’ when she thought about giv­ing up writ­ing. ‘‘ I could [ still] give it up now,’’ she says, the de­flated, world­weary tone re­turn­ing, ‘‘ but I think that in the last cou­ple of years I have be­come more ac­cept­ing of my fate and I know this is what I will do for the rest of my life. I know that I sound ex­tremely spoiled and vile when I com­plain be­cause there are cer­tainly a lot more dif­fi­cult ways to earn a liv­ing . . . I am some­body for whom the grass is al­ways greener.’’

It’s true many writ­ers can spend en­tire ca­reers at­tempt­ing to win the kind of prizes and crit­i­cal plau­dits she has tucked un­der her belt. In 2003, Hart­nett’s best- known adult novel, Of a Boy, took out a Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers Prize, The Age book of the year award and was short- listed for the Miles Franklin.

Two of her nov­els ( Sur­ren­der and The Sil­ver Don­key ) have won prizes, in­clud­ing the main fiction prize, at the Vic­to­rian Pre­mier’s lit­er­ary awards and two have snared the Chil­dren’s Book Coun­cil book of the year gongs. In 2002, an­other novel, Thurs­day’s Child , won The Guardian ’ s chil­dren’s fiction prize, lift­ing the Aus­tralian’s profile in Bri­tain.

To­day, Hart­nett’s books are pub­lished in Bri­tain, the US, Canada, Ger­many and Italy. Lon­don’s The Sun­day Times has com­pared her with John Stein­beck, while Aus­tralian critic Peter Craven calls her ‘‘ the finest Aus­tralian writer of her gen­er­a­tion’’ and ‘‘ a nov­el­ist of ge­nius’’.

‘‘ That’s not true!’’ she says sharply of the ge­nius com­pli­ment. She ex­plains she has been en­gaged in a long strug­gle to ‘‘ make peace with my des­tiny’’; with the idea that ‘‘ I would never be great at what I did. I would never have great [ com­mer­cial] suc­cess. I con­sider my­self a jour­ney­man writer. I’m good but I am not great. All th­ese things I have just be­come re­signed to. It’s bet­ter to be all right than to be crappy. Bet­ter to have mod­er­ate [ com­mer­cial] suc­cess than have no [ lit­er­ary] suc­cess.’’

Here again, it’s hard to un­der­stand Hart­nett’s de­spon­dency. Her pub­lisher, Pen­guin, says her com­bined sales are ap­proach­ing 250,000. Across 16 nov­els, this makes her one of the coun­try’s most con­sis­tently strong- sell­ing lit­er­ary au­thors.

As metaphor­i­cally rich as an epic poem, her new novel is about the na­ture of love and loss, and learn­ing how to rise above grief. As she puts it: ‘‘ Love can be great, but not very of­ten. Peo­ple will die for love, kill for love and in fact draw the line nowhere for love.’’

She de­scribes her fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, Maddy, as some­one who loves ab­nor­mally, and Maddy’s lover, Feather, as fey and in­de­ci­sive. ‘‘ In real life that kind of char­ac­ter might drive me out of my mind,’’ she jokes.

Feral males such as Feather have fea­tured in her nov­els be­fore. ‘‘ I know what I like about feral chil­dren,’’ she vol­un­teers cheer­ily. ‘‘ I wanted to be one. I would still like to be one. I would have liked to have been brought up by wolves or some­thing like that.’’

Asked if The Ghost’s Child is in any way au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, she says: ‘‘ Like many peo­ple, I have loved and lost, and loved and gained, and all that sort of stuff.’’

She re­veals Land­scape with An­i­mals was also based on an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship she once had but drew on many other ex­pe­ri­ences of love, ‘‘ be­cause life isn’t a work of art and that is what I strove to pro­duce, a work of art’’.

This erotic novel, de­pict­ing an in­tense but doomed af­fair be­tween a wo­man who is un­at­tached and a man who isn’t, was pub­lished un­der the pseu­do­nym Cameron S. Red­fern. The rea­son, Hart­nett says, is that she didn’t want it to mis­tak­enly end up on chil­dren’s book­shelves in li­braries and book­shops, next to her other works.

Two weeks af­ter Land­scape was pub­lished, Hart­nett’s iden­tity was re­vealed. The spec­ta­cle of a kids lit queen writ­ing erot­ica — some called it porn — en­sured that Land­scape be­came the first Hart­nett novel to make the news pages and the gos­sip col­umns. The writer was philo­soph­i­cal about her cover be­ing blown: ‘‘ I had no doubt it would come out. I didn’t think it would come out as fast as it did.’’

A no­to­ri­ous re­view of Land­scape by her erst­while cham­pion, Craven, pro­voked a sep­a­rate de­bate about sex­u­ally ex­plicit writ­ing by women and al­leged dou­ble stan­dards. Craven wrote an ex­co­ri­at­ing cri­tique, con­clud­ing that Land­scape was a ‘‘ tawdry lit­tle crotch tick­ler’’ and an ‘‘ in­di­gestible hair­ball of spunk and spite’’. Nov­el­ist Mar­ion Hal­li­gan leapt to Hart­nett’s defence, tak­ing Craven’s de­mo­li­tion job as ev­i­dence that erot­ica by women was still sub­jected to dou­ble stan­dards by male re­view­ers.

Still wounded, Hart­nett says of Craven’s re­view: ‘‘ What can you do, laugh it off? Laugh and laugh and laugh ’ til I top my­self? You have to laugh be­cause oth­er­wise you’d cry, I sup­pose. [ Based on that re­view] I don’t think Peter hates this book as much as he hates me.’’

I point out that in his re­view, Craven also said she was the best Aus­tralian writer of her gen­er­a­tion. She re­torts that ‘‘ he was giv­ing me a last cig­a­rette be­fore he shot me down. I guess it con­soled me to know it was a per­sonal at­tack as much as it was an at­tack on the book be­cause I can take it but my work can’t.’’

In his re­view Craven claimed Land­scape could be imag­ined as ‘‘ some sort of ges­ture of re­venge’’ against the phi­lan­der­ing male char­ac­ter. Hart­nett says: ‘‘ That was very wrong. I think if you read that book there is no sense of vi­cious­ness to­wards the man.’’ Min­utes later, she in­sists she and Craven are still friends; that she has in­vited him to the launch of The Ghost’s Child.

Hart­nett is one of few au­thors who can segue smoothly into adult and back to young adult fiction again. She be­gan writ­ing The Ghost’s Child for 13- year- olds, hit a wall and put it aside for a year. It evolved into a novel aimed at teenagers and adults. ‘‘ Once I started it again, it was a pretty well- be­haved book,’’ she says with a laugh.

Her dis­il­lu­sion­ment with writ­ing re­flected her frus­tra­tion at see­ing av­er­age books, such as The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Pot­ter se­ries, be­ing out­ra­geously over­pro­moted. ‘‘ The cel­e­bra­tion of the medi­ocre we have in this coun­try is dispir­it­ing,’’ she says. She ob­jects to ‘‘ this sort of ra­bid sup­port of Harry Pot­ter to the ex­clu­sion of so many other good books for chil­dren. It was fine for a cou­ple of years un­til it crossed the line and be­came re­ally sick­en­ing and stupid.’’

Hav­ing com­plained in the past about be­ing boxed in as a young adult au­thor, she says her higher profile to­day re­flects her re­cent over­seas suc­cess. Sin­gle and push­ing 40, she can live off her writ­ing, the re­sult, mostly, of be­ing pub­lished in­ter­na­tion­ally. Still, she some­times asks her­self if she erred in not mar­ry­ing, not hav­ing chil­dren, though she was never con­vinced that life was for her: ‘‘ The feral kid in me says mar­riage and chil­dren are for other peo­ple.’’ Still, she ad­mits, ‘‘ Some­times, I ask: ‘ Have I com­pletely messed up my life?’ ’’

A devo­tee of gar­den­ing and an­i­mals, she lives alone in a quiet sub­urb of Melbourne with a husky called Shilo and a kit­ten, Mar­cus. She writes a news­pa­per col­umn called Tails of the City, about do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals. Some are funny, but most are sad. ‘‘ As much as I can, I like to make them more light- hearted, though that is not my na­ture, that is not my way,’’ she chuck­les.

Hart­nett once told a jour­nal­ist: ‘‘ I was born old and bit­ter.’’ She now says old is spot- on but bit­ter isn’t. ‘‘ I was born old and with my eyes open,’’ she de­cides, then changes her mind: ‘‘ Ac­tu­ally, I was born with the cord around my throat and blue, and that is how I’ve felt ever since.’’ The Ghost’s Child by Sonya Hart­nett ( Vik­ing, $ 24.95) is pub­lished on July 2.

Pic­ture: David Crosling

I guess you get a lit­tle bit ad­dicted to it’: Award- win­ning au­thor Sonya Hart­nett

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